“Madness and arrogance” blamed for one lawsuit against desert groundwater agency

October 1, 2020
by Lois Henry
Lois Henry

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Two lawsuits accusing the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority of ramming through a plan that ignores water rights and, according to one plaintiff, is intended to “destroy agriculture” were filed this week.

At issue is a controversial $2,000-per-acre-foot fee approved by the authority last month that would be charged to certain groundwater users over a five-year period. That money is intended to raise $50 million to buy Central Valley water and, somehow, bring it over the Sierra Nevadas to replenish the overdrafted desert aquifer.

Two of the pumpers who would have to pay the $2,000 fee disagreed — vehemently — with the authority’s decision to prioritize groundwater for the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake at the expense of other users, one of which claims a higher groundwater right than the Navy.

The suits were filed separately by Searles Valley Minerals and Mojave Pistachios.

“This suit seeks no relief against the Navy and it is made necessary by the madness and arrogance of former Navy Base Commander Mick Gleason and his intention to destroy agriculture and specifically us,” said Rod Stiefvater, owner of Mojave Pistachios in a statement.

Gleason, a Kern County Supervisor, is chairman of the authority.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday by Searles seeks a permanent injunction against the fee being charged to Searles.

It also asks that any conclusions regarding water rights in the authority’s Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) be declared “null and void.”

Though the lawsuit is concerned with water rights, it is not seeking an adjudication of the Indian Wells Valley basin, according to Burnell Blanchard, Vice President of Operations at Searles.

An adjudication would put water rights, groundwater extractions and basin management decisions entirely in a judge’s hands and could take years to work through.

Rather than adjudication, Blanchard wrote in an email, Searles’ suit is challenging the authority’s GSP, now under review by the Department of Water Resources.

He didn’t believe Searles’ action would set any kind of precedent for other groundwater sustainability agencies in the state.

“We see this as a result of extreme positions on hydrology and water rights taken by the (Indian Wells Valley groundwater authority) and not representative of what other businesses and communities are experiencing throughout the state where groundwater agencies are generally being more cooperative in working with stakeholders in implementing SGMA,” Blanchard wrote in an email.

He referred to the authority allotting the lion’s share of groundwater to the Navy as an “extreme position.”

Mojave Pistachios’ suit likewise alleges the GSP is invalid and seeks more than $255 million in damages for the zero allocation of groundwater allotted to the company, which has nearly 1,600 acres of pistachios growing in the desert valley.

“The (authority) completely subverted the principal objective of SGMA — to develop sustainable groundwater management — by ramming through a plan that illegally prioritizes the needs of the entities that serve on its board over agriculture and private industry under a ruse that the action was required to protect the Navy,” Mojave Pistachios’ attorney, Scott Slater, wrote in a statement.

The stakes are high for the desert community, about 120 miles northeast of Bakersfield.

Under the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the basin has until 2040 to bring its aquifer into balance, meaning it can’t pump out more than is being recharged.

That’s a tough act in an area that only gets about 7,600 acre feet a year in natural recharge but pumps about 33,000 acre feet for domestic, industrial and agricultural uses.

The authority has been struggling to figure out how to cover that 25,000-acre-foot- annual overdraft.

Measures to shrink demand through conservation and greater recycled water use are only anticipated to cut the overdraft to about 13,000 acre feet a year.

The authority concluded the valley needed more water.

Hence, the replenishment fee, which would be charged once an entity exceeds its groundwater allotments.

Since the authority allotted nearly all the basin’s natural recharge, about 6,500 acre feet a year, to the Navy, that didn’t leave much for other users, including Searles and almost all agricultural operations in the basin.

The move also put the authority in the position of assigning water rights, a no-no under SGMA, according to Searles’ lawsuit.

“SGMA precludes Authority from adopting a groundwater management plan that ‘determines or alters [any] water rights,’” the suit states.

Beyond that, the lawsuit states, the authority ignored evidence that Searles actually has higher priority groundwater rights than the Navy, as Searles has been pumping consistently since the 1930s — before the Navy arrived on the scene during World War II.

Searles, uses about 2,400 acre feet of water a year for its operations, which produce salt, soda ash and boron. It’s actually located in Trona, outside the Indian Wells Valley basin and employs about 700 people.

The base, meanwhile, employs about 7,000 people. The groundwater authority is seeking money and assistance from the Department of Defense for the infrastructure it will need to get water over the mountains into the valley.

A call to a Navy spokesperson was not returned.

Gleason has previously acknowledged that Searles may have a water right that should be considered and he hoped a solution could be negotiated.

“I’m looking forward to accommodating them as best we possibly can,” he said Wednesday.

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.


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